With a statistic that nearly 40,000 Americans commit suicide annually – making suicide the second most common cause of death among adolescents and becoming prevalent among college students – Dr. Diana Wilson knew people locally were hurting. So, she organized a group that offered a safe space where individuals could share their unimaginable grief due to suicide.
“I think you have a group of people in such need and despair, and I felt I could bring them together to dispel some of that fear … and to process their reactions” to their loss, said Dr. Wilson, a board-certified psychiatrist who has been practicing adult psychiatry for more than 20 years.
Dr. Wilson, a practicing Catholic, said the Christian values of putting others first, using the gifts that God gave you and helping those in need impelled her to start a free suicide support group at Holy Name of Jesus Parish Center. She earned her medical degree and residency in adult psychiatry from Tulane University School of Medicine and also participated in a Psycho-oncology Observership at Sloan Kettering Hospital. Former pastor, Father Ed Gros, was agreeable to having the meetings in his parish.
“The fact that the Catholic community supports this effort was comforting,” said one participant.
During seven or so weeks, she facilitated a group of eight participants who gained trust and support in each other, sharing the common bond of the suicide of a loved one.
Group members ranged in age from 20 to 72 and differed on when their suicide experience had occurred, Dr. Wilson said, leading to open discussions that even helped those with a recent suicide event feel comfortable from the outset.
“Having all these different times allowed those fresh in grief to have support and insight,” Dr. Wilson, a native New Orleanian, said. “The group helped each other regarding the different stages of coping and healing and that there would be a light at the end of the tunnel and a new normal.”
Stages of grief
In between sharing, Dr. Wilson relayed the specific stages of grief that each person would encounter, though the emotions, reactions and when they reached each stage would differ. There is no set timeline to grief, she said.
She also offered coping skills and the biochemical causes of why people react how they do and said participants found that beneficial.
Group members helped each other get through a crucial time in their healing, since many “are hesitant to speak about their loss. They think there is shame and guilt associated with it and have so many unanswered questions” since suicide is a loss different than other deaths.
Dr. Wilson said the wave of emotions left after suicide are normal and can include:
1. Shock. There was no warning or idea that it was happening or they thought the person (who committed suicide) was okay.
Suicide can be traumatic for survivors, she said. They can’t stop thinking about what happened to their loved one; they feel helpless and don’t know how to go on or they could be in denial and refuse to believe it happened.
Feelings of guilt can lead to self-blame or blaming others for not recognizing that someone was emotionally troubled. Some feel a sense of rejection – that their love wasn’t enough, thinking, “I am leaving you.”
2. A predominant feeling of anger, guilt or responsibility, thinking, “He or she left me” or “You give a child life, and he destroyed it.” “Where did I go wrong?” “Did I miss the warning signs?” They feel the stigma of not being a good enough parent. Parents might experience sleeplessness, remorse, anxiety.
3. Depression, low self-esteem, lack of control dominates. Feeling disconnected from others.
4. Psychological issues: guilt, suicidal thoughts, frequent doctor visits due to physical pain symptoms.
Dr. Wilson suggested ways to release anger in a healthy manner such as exercise or hobbies. Group members also discussed their modes of anger management such as visiting the park alone.
“The beauty of the group is that participants gained the “feeling that they are not alone, and, at a time like this, this is crucial. … the group is essential. If you haven’t walked that path, it’s hard to understand.”
Suicide crosses all socio-economic groups, she said, and that one person cannot prevent someone from committing suicide. To mention a few statistics: the average person makes eight to 25 attempts before completion; more women than men attempt suicide, but more men succeed; 72 percent of all suicides are committed by white men; 57 percent of the time it is with a firearm.
Check in each meeting
Dr. Wilson said she began each meeting with a moment of silence, a quote and had participants mention how they were doing.
She said she used Christian principles when discussing the need to forgive their loved ones and themselves as a crucial step of progressing past what happened.
“Forgiving yourself and talking about what happened is a way to remember your loved one,” she said. “This is not the only part of your life.” Recognizing that it is a new normal helps.
Dr. Wilson said she gleaned much from the experience of having a suicide support group. She didn’t know the extent to which group members would help each other.
“It opened my eyes on how to be a good friend to others, and I learned from the group what is appreciated and not appreciated following a death by suicide,” she said. “Group members wanted people (friends and family) to stay in touch and talk about it with them … not make it swept under the rug.”
Dr. Wilson will offer a second, free suicide support group on Mondays at 5 p.m. for eight weeks, beginning in October at St. Francis of Assisi Catholic Church, 631 State St., New Orleans. For details or to register, call Melissa at 565-7474.
Christine Bordelon can be reached at email@example.com.
Out of the Darkness Walk
→ WHAT: Annual free walk to create awareness of suicide.
→ WHEN: Saturday, Sept. 8, 10 a.m.; registration begins at 9 a.m.
→ WHERE: Begins on Lakeshore Drive at Shelter #2 (near UNO) led by a brass band for a 1/2 mile.
→ SPONSOR: the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention aims to reduce suicide by 20 percent by 2025. Foundation members are available to
talk about the signs, symptoms and prevention of suicide in schools and businesses. Call area director Leigh Ann Raab at 220-6100, firstname.lastname@example.org or walk chairperson Rayna Sardegna at (985) 210-5451.
→ On the Web: https://afsp.org